Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My hasty, Dogtooth-heavy responses to Professor Hubert Farnsworth's Only Slightly Futuristic Holiday Movie Quiz

(Note: Response to question 13 edited on 30 December.)

1) Best Movie of 2010

2010 has seen a good number of fine movies, but none shook me quite as much as Dogtooth. Yorgos Lanthimos’ second feature chronicles the strange goings-on in a home in which the parents have barricaded their children from the outside world for their entire lives. Increasing the isolation is the parents’ skewed educational (brainwashing?) techniques, which include misrepresenting the meanings of words referring to the world outside- “the sea” is used to refer to an armchair, for example. Dogtooth is hard to watch in spots, with both the children and some cats subjected to some brutal treatment. But it’s also wholly original, with equal parts absurdism and tragedy, and a skewed vision courtesy of its young filmmaker.

2) Second-favorite Roman Polanski Movie

Chilly, innocent-seeming blondes were long a hallmark of the thriller genre, not least in the films of Alfred Hitchcock. But while most of his predecessors turned their towheaded lovelies into victims, it took Polanski to explore the frightening possibilities of these characters in Repulsion. Part of the reason why it works is because Polanski took the time to define his protagonist in terms of her sexuality- after all, if we can’t see what Carol is protecting herself from, there’s really no story here. But just as important is Catherine Deneuve’s performance as Carol, the ice queen to end all ice queens. Fresh off her star-making role in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Deneuve took that role’s girlish sunniness and turned it on its proverbial ear, turning Carol into a blank slate that’s little more than pent-up sexual paranoia on the verge of exploding. As a star on the rise, it was risky for Deneuve to play a character this alienating, but she’s pretty perfect, and her performance announced that she was interested in more than simply being eye candy. Also, Polanski’s direction cooks, with even the most surreal moments generating real scares because they seem to spring from Carol’s troubled mind.

3) Jason Statham or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

The Rock’s charming as hell, but Statham is slightly more versatile, so in terms of star power it’s probably a draw. But I’m gonna have to go with Statham here, since The Rock has yet to make a movie as pleasurable as Statham’s Crank franchise. I love those crazy-ass movies.

4) Favorite movie that could be classified as a genre hybrid

It’s a slapstick comedy! It’s a Civil War movie! It’s Buster Keaton’s The General, and it’s awesome (as I’m sure you all knew already).

5) How important is foreknowledge of a film’s production history? Should it factor into one’s reaction to a film?

Ideally, a good movie should stand on its own, and it should be judged only by what happens between the opening logos and the end credits. However, this rarely happens in real life. Sometimes, it’s good to realize the hard work that went into the film. Consider older movies such as Metropolis or the works of Keaton and Chaplin, in which the directors achieved their effects not through computers but through some ingenious tricks. But in many other cases, there’s a fine line between having a knowledge of the story behind the making of a movie and letting that knowledge color one’s perception of the movie. For instance, it’s not useful for a viewer to let the real-life activities of an actor distort their appreciation of his performance or the character he plays- that’s gossip-rag garbage, and has no place in the movie-watching process. And this obsession some people have with movie’s budgets and box office performance is pretty annoying, I have to say. In the end, it comes back to the movie itself. Does it do what it sets out to do? If it does, that really ought to be enough.

6) William Powell & Myrna Loy or Cary Grant & Irene Dunne

Grant’s one of my favorites, and I love The Awful Truth. Still, it’s hard to argue with that famous Nick and Nora chemistry, so Powell and Loy win this.

7) Best Actor of 2010

Do I really need to choose between Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network and Edgar Ramirez in Carlos? Eisenberg, whose performances are usually best described as agreeably nebbishy, revealed a new side to his talent by playing Mark Zuckerberg as a tunnel-visionary, training his laser focus on his conception of Facebook and leaving everything else in his life in the dust. He never makes Zuckerberg likable exactly, but one can’t help but admiring him, as his tireless work for Facebook gives him a strange sort of integrity. Ramirez is equally impressive, giving a performance that spans half a dozen languages (including Arabic, which he learned for the role), and inhabiting the skin of Carlos from his early days as a hungry young revolutionary to his Sudanese exile, a bloated leftover from the Cold War. Ramirez inhabits nearly every frame of Carlos, and the film is damn near unimaginable without him.

8) Most important lesson learned from the past decade of watching movies

If you’re not getting paid to see movies, you don’t need to see anything you don’t want to see. To feel obligated to see movies you could care less about leads to bitterness and disillusionment. Better to watch a dozen movies you’re legitimately interested in than a hundred that you think might be OK. In short, watch what you want to watch.

9) Last movie seen (DVD/Blu-ray/theater)

Last movie on DVD: Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs, or as I’ve taken to calling it, Death by Whimsy. Jeunet’s flair for visually interesting set pieces is as strong as ever, but the story isn’t compelling and the characters are fairly dull, if quirky. After about half an hour, I was pretty much worn out, which I’m guessing wasn’t Jeunet’s goal.

Last movie in theatre: James L. Brooks’ How Do You Know. Why isn’t this getting more love? Sure, it’s “messy,” but where the film’s detractors see narrative digressions, I see a unique comic voice peeking through. Brooks is in love with the possibilities of long scenes, and although these don’t exactly move the story along, they work so well unto themselves that I hardly noticed. The hospital scene may be the best scene I’ve seen this past year.

10) Most appropriate punishment for director Tom Six

To be forced to direct- but not write- a big-budget Hollywood star vehicle. The guy knows how to direct a movie, but the attention-grabbing stunts have got to go. Let’s see what he can do with a particularly hands-on star who won’t let him get away with being provocative simply to drum up hype. I’m thinking a cookie-cutter romcom starring Sandra Bullock could do the trick. Failing that, what he deserves most is to be ignored until he gets this “Human Centipede” crap out of his system.

11) Best under-the-radar movie almost no one else has had the chance to see

Jacques Rivette’s Out 1. With all the crap that’s out there on DVD, it’s shameful that this magnum opus by one of the masters of filmmaking hasn’t even gotten a VHS release. Come on, Criterion- get on this!

12) Sheree North or Angie Dickinson

Nothing against Sheree, but there’s only one Feathers, and Sheree ain’t it. Angie Dickinson in a walk.

13) Favorite nakedly autobiographical movie

Do I think that every scene of Buffalo ‘66 was taken from Vincent Gallo’s life? Of course not. I’m pretty sure Gallo never went to jail as punishment for a gambling debt. Yet the scenes involving his parents seethe with the pain of real-life experience. Gallo’s dad was a singer, and Ben Gazzara lip-synchs along with one of his old songs. And Gallo’s character’s strained-at-best relationship with his folks feels like it’s born of real wounds dating back to childhood. I don’t know if that’s the kind of answer you’re looking for, Professor, but it’s the answer you’re getting.

(added 30 December) Oh, OK... if you insist. The obvious answer here is 8 1/2, but I'd like to put in a good word for Passing Strange. Yeah, it's more of a performance film than a straight-up movie, but Spike Lee made the right choice not to adapt it for the screen, since the intimate theatre-in-the-round format works to the material's benefit. And the material is, in a word, awesome. Composer-narrator Stew mines a pivotal time in his life- his artistic awakening and extended sojourn in Amsterdam and Berlin- for genuine feeling as well as great theatre. Most surprisingly, he's able to take that most careworn crutch of the roman-a-clef, his relationship with his mother, and make it feel fresh and complex, by virtue of the complex and unresolved feelings it summons in him. Plus it's just entertaining as hell, from his spoofing of every terrible punk band that never made it out of the garage, to his hilarious toe-tapping American-in-Berlin ditty "The Black One." One of my favorite movies of 2009.

14) Movie which best evokes a specific real-life place

Paris after May ’68 is often depicted as an intellectual wonderland, and to be sure, all evidence points to the idea that it was a hotbed for thought and creativity. But where one finds genius one also finds those who aspire to it, even as they fall hopelessly short. So when I think of Parisian counterculture in the sixties and seventies, I think not of The Dreamers but rather of Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, which pulls back the curtain on the idealism of the time and reveals a world chock full of layabouts and bullshit artists. Of course, the heyday of the world couldn’t last forever, and it was curdling by the time Eustache made the film in 1973. But that he could be so clear-eyed about the shortcomings of the team even as it was still going on makes The Mother and the Whore both a great film and an invaluable warts-and-all portrait of a key period in modern French history, the last gasp of idealism before malaise set in once more.

15) Best Director of 2010

Yorgos Lanthimos, for Dogtooth. Too often, a young filmmaker seems beholden to his influences. But while Dogtooth feels superficially indebted to directors like Buñuel, Von Trier, and Haneke, Lanthimos has a vision all his own. Just as importantly, he takes some tricky material and handles it magnificently, achieving a perfect balance between absurdism, tragedy, and brutality. It’s a real achievement, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

16) Second-favorite Farrelly Brothers Movie

Well, my favorite is easily Stuck on You- a strong contender for the most under-loved movie of the past decade, not that you asked. As for my second-favorite, I’d probably have to go with Kingpin, which is the apex of the Farrellys’ scatological period. It helps that they chose a milieu that lends itself particularly well to sleaze- the world of professional bowling, which is gaudy and low-rent enough when it’s on the level, but attains a particularly downmarket flavor whenever hustling is involved. And the actors are nothing if not committed- you can almost smell the stale smoke on Woody Harrelson’s Roy Munson, and it’s nice to see Randy Quaid in his pre-wackjob phase. Then there’s the priceless Bill Murray as “Big Ern” McCracken. This wasn’t Murray’s last straight-up comedic performance, but it feels like the last time he really tried to sell the silly stuff before he shifted into deadpan territory. Good stuff, this one.

17) Favorite holiday movie

All-singing! All-dancing! All-vamping! All-killing! I’m probably alone on this, but I think 8 Women is pretty rockin’. That it takes place at Christmas is reason enough for me to choose it here.

18) Best Actress of 2010

Disabled roles have long been awards-season catnip, but no one would call Sylvie Testud’s performance in Lourdes Oscar-bait. For one thing, it was barely released in this country, so it wouldn’t stand a chance even if it was in the Academy’s wheelhouse. But more importantly, Testud’s performance is so subtle that it’s easy to overlook what a masterful acting job she does. Testud gives a very lived-in portrayal of a quadriplegic woman who decides to tag along with a tour group visiting the titular shrine, and so completely does she inhabit the character that the disability is merely one of the things that makes her so compelling. And so convincingly does she convey the predicament of a woman who is essentially in deep free from the neck down that it’s all the more astonishing when, following a miracle, she almost without thinking reaches out and touches something she never could have before. Testud is one of the most fascinating actresses currently working, and Lourdes offers ample evidence of her acting gifts.

19) Joe Don Baker or Bo Svenson

Haven’t we already had this question? Oh well. Don’t really have a strong opinion about this one, I have to say.

20) Of those notable figures in the world of the movies who died in 2010, name the one you’ll miss the most

A world in which we have no more new Eric Rohmer films to look forward to seems almost unbearably sad.

21) Think of a movie with a notable musical score and describe what it might feel like without that accompaniment.

Alfred Hitchcock shot Psycho with his TV crew, with the goal of making it look like it took place in the workaday world instead of the world of movies. For most of the movie, the only thing giving it an uneasy atmosphere is Bernard Herrmann’s score. Try to imagine Marion running away from Phoenix with no music behind her- much of the urgency would be gone, I dare say. And I’d guess that the famous shower scene wouldn’t be such an effective scare moment without the screeching strings- the visceral effect would be all but gone. But what would suffer most would probably be the post-killing scenes in which the seemingly innocent Norman is repeatedly questioned about the murder. In these scenes, Hitchcock cannily employed the same musical motifs in the earlier scenes involving Marion so that Norman feels like a victim. It’s a clever bit of misdirection that would be lost without the music behind it.

22) Best Screenplay of 2010

As I said above in question (5), I prefer to base my judgments of a movie on what happens between the opening logos and the closing credits. Because of this, I make it a point not to read the screenplays for the films, and consequently I don’t know how to best answer this question. Even something as basic as dialogue is a tough call. How much of what comes out of the characters’ mouth was on the page, and how much came out of shooting? Does the mood set by the film come from the screenplay or direction? How much of the story was constructed in the editing room? And what makes a “good” screenplay anyway? A good story? Good form and structure? Loads of research? Jesus, now my head hurts.

23) Movie You Feel Most Evangelistic About Right Now

Um… Dogtooth!

24) Worst/funniest movie accent ever

What in the hell was John Malkovich going for in Rounders? I mean, I get that Teddy KGB was supposed to be Russian. But while bizarre accents have been a tradition of comedies ever since the days of Peter Sellers, Rounders was intended to be a drama. Did it not occur to John Dahl that Malkovich’s sub-Boris Badenov routine would take everyone right out of the story?

As for deliberately funny accents, I’m a fan of Lambert Wilson’s “real” American and “fake” French accents in Alain Resnais’ Not on the Lips. The British/French Wilson is perfectly bilingual, which makes it all the funnier that his characters’ stumbling attempts at French sound like he’s reading of phonetically-translated cue cards. But just as funny is his chewed-on take on Middle American, which makes him sound like James Coburn with a lip full of Novocaine.

25) Best Cinematography of 2010

Most films that employ digital cinematography use the new medium as a replacement for old-school film. However, there are a handful of filmmakers that have figured out the unique possibilities for digital, and David Fincher is one of them. With The Social Network, Fincher and d.p. Jeff Cronenweth transformed a potentially dry subject- the founding of Facebook- and turned it into a visually startling work by employing technology as current as that upon which its protagonist created his online empire. Most impressive is how Fincher and Cronenweth take advantage of the sharpness of the Red camera to heighten the unique visual textures of the film’s various settings- the burnished halls of Harvard’s “final clubs,” the institutional light of the Facebook offices, the neon paradise of the nightclub where Zuckerberg conspires with Sean Parker, the bong smoke that weighs down the air in Facebook’s California house. Much of the time, it’s historical epics that hog the cinematography accolades, but The Social Network beats them all this year.

26) Olivia Wilde or Gemma Arterton

I don’t have a strong opinion about either one, honestly. Wilde’s face is more interesting, so she’s got the edge there. On the other hand, if I was still single I’d do my damnedest to snag the one-sheet for Tamara Drewe, featuring the memorable image of Arterton in tiny shorts. Then again, I haven’t seen the movie yet, so it’s not like I’m a huge fan. Of course, Wilde was on House, and my lady likes House, so I guess she has the edge.

27) Name the three best movies you saw for the first time in 2010 (Thanks, Larry!)

I don’t get a chance to watch as many older movies as I’d like to, so my list won’t be quite as impressive as some. But instead of answering Dogtooth yet again, here are three oldies-but-goodies submitted for your approval: (1) Sam Fuller’s incendiary White Dog, which I wrote about in detail for the Killer Animal Blogathon, (2) Hou Hsiao-hsien’s epic City of Sadness, a lovely drama about sweeping historical changes in Taiwan, and (3) John Woo’s Hard Boiled, with its awesomely unhinged extended battle in a hospital.

28) Best romantic movie couple of 2010

Most poignant: Kathy and Tommy, Never Let Me Go. Most promising: Lisa and George, How Do You Know. Most toxic: Gitti and Chris, Everyone Else. Hottest: Nina and Nina’s version of Lily, Black Swan. Most tragic: Dom and Mal, Inception.

29) Favorite shock/surprise ending

”You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you! Damn you all to hell!”

30) Best cinematic reason to have stayed home and read a book in 2010

It’s been almost eleven months since I saw this, but I still shudder a bit to think of the Jackie Chan kiddie vehicle The Spy Next Door. Late-period Chan has been fairly disheartening as a whole, I’d say- age has diminished his once-formidable athleticism to the point where he seems to be angling for the youth audience because he believes they’re the only ones who will still be impressed by his skills. But what makes the movie really egregious is that no one making it seemed to care. It’s as if the studio, producers, director, writers, actors, and everyone else down to the catering department figured that they only had to put in the least possible amount of effort in order to finish the movie and post a decent opening weekend on the road to a DVD release.

Don’t get me wrong- there are plenty of movies out there that feel like quick cash-grabs. But ever since I became a father, I’ve become especially annoyed by lousy movies aimed at kids. After all, children are full of imagination and creativity, two things that should always be encouraged. However, children are also highly susceptible to outside influences- to advertising and promotional tie-ins, to say nothing of peer pressure. So whenever Hollywood hard-sells shoddy goods like The Spy Next Door to children, it’s doing nothing less than grinding down a child’s creative impulses and destroying his ability to distinguish something really special from a run-of-the-mill time-waster (sadly, this is an ability many people find almost impossible to get back, if the ratings for Jersey Shore are any indication).

In short, not only should I have stayed home and read a book instead of seeing The Spy Next Door, but I should have stayed home with the offspring and read with him. At least then an extra precious little sliver of imagination in his brain might have survived a little longer.

31) Movies in 2011 could make me much happier if they’d only _______________

”release Tree of Life already.” Which it looks like they’re planning to do, so I’m at a loss for a better answer. Let’s see… “movies in 2011 could make me much happier if they’d only make it easier for me to watch the best new releases with my lady without having to plan ahead, pay for a sitter, etc.” Yeah, I guess that works.

Check out Dennis’ original post and more responses right here.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Very Criterion Christmas!

Dig, if you will, this year's Christmas haul. Woohoo!

Hope you all got everything you wished for and more.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sense and Sensuality

Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love is nothing if not ambitious. In interviews, Guadagnino and his collaborator and leading lady Tilda Swinton have stated that they wanted to resurrect the old-school melodramas of Douglas Sirk, a genre that has fallen on hard times as critics have used the word “melodrama” as a club to beat down films that traffic in larger-than-life emotions over “realism.” And Guadagnino and Swinton have a solid starting point for their goal in their story of a privileged Russian-Italian woman (played by Swinton) who tumbles into an affair with her son’s best friend. Trouble is, Guadagnino can’t muster up the emotional highs required of his chosen genre. Swinton is fine- she’s completely convincing in two foreign languages and her alien presence makes it clear she doesn’t fit into the upper-class world into which she’s married. But in the end, the film lets her down, as Guadagnino allows external signifiers- weather changes to reflect tonal shifts, John Adams’ memorable but suffocating score- to signal what ought to spring organically from what’s happening in the characters’ lives. What’s more, Guadagnino aims to make I Am Love a feast for the senses, but aside from a key scene in which Swinton tucks into a prawn dish her lover-to-be has prepared for her, Guadagnino’s “sensual” images to little more than invite a reaction of “ooh, purty.” Which, I mean, yeah, but in more capable hands they could have been so much more. To imagine what a sensualist like Bernardo Bertolucci or even the Martin Scorsese who gave us the indelible image of a razor slicing through a clove of garlic is to weep a little at what I Am Love might have been. Rating: 5 out of 10.

If I Am Love invites audiences to taste its every dish and feel its every texture, then Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan have another sympathetic sensation in mind- pain. Much of the hype for 127 Hours has reckoned with its true-life premise, in which lone-wolf adventurer Aron Ralston got pinned between two rocks for more than five days and eventually freed himself by hacking off his trapped arm. On paper, the concept seems like it would lend itself to a spare, Gerry-style treatment in which the director maroons the audience with Ralston (played by James Franco), all the better to feel his isolation and appreciate what he does and doesn’t have to work with in the situation. Instead, Boyle amps up his filmmaking like a film student jacked up on Mountain Dew, employing jackhammer editing to cut between Ralston’s plight in the canyon and his memories and fantasies about the rest of his life. Sometimes, this tactic pays off, as when he ponders the little mistakes- not telling anyone where he was headed, leaving a bottle of Gatorade in his Jeep, forgetting his Swiss Army knife- that got him in his situation. But just as often, the cutaways are distractingly unsubtle, as Boyle and cowriter Simon Beaufoy hammer home the point that, yes, Even Aron Ralston Needs Other People. That said, James Franco is pretty brilliant here, and it’s easy to imagine a more minimalistic approach working in his capable, um, hands. And that “money scene”- ouch. (Especially the sound.) Rating: 6 out of 10.

Like The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky’s last film, Black Swan’s primary theme is the extent to which people will push themselves for their chosen art. In Black Swan, that art is ballet, and one of the most compelling aspects of the film is observing at close range how much of the grace of dance comes from forcing the body to bend in directions it simply wasn’t meant to go. But Black Swan also deals with the mental distresses that its heroine Nina (played by Natalie Portman), an up-and-coming dancer in the Metropolitan Ballet, faces when she takes on the bifurcated lead role on Swan Lake. As the troupe’s leader (Vincent Cassel) tells her, her impeccable porcelain style is ideal of the White Swan, but she has more trouble with the Black Swan’s heedless abandon, so he encourages her to let her darker side loose. One of the common threads in Aronofsky’s work is psychology manifesting itself physically, and true to form, Nina’s discovery of her own darker side leads to a bodily transformation into the Black Swan. Or does it? This does-she-or-doesn’t-she enigma is one of its least interesting aspects, not so much because of its ambiguous nature but because it feels like a lack of nerve on the film’s part. However, it must be said that this lack of nerve isn’t something shared by the film as a whole, as Aronofsky embraces the Grand Guignol style needed to really sell a story of this nature. And if much of Black Swan feels like pieces of other films- the dancer-swallowed-by-the-role storyline of The Red Shoes, the freakish imagery of Repulsion, the mother-daughter dynamic of The Piano Teacher- then at least Aronofsky chooses his influences wisely. Like the Met’s production of Swan Lake in the film, Black Swan takes classic influences and makes them fresh and exciting. Rating: 8 out of 10.

Of course, the credo of “everything old is new again” is one that’s shared by Tron: Legacy, an eye-popping sequel to the 1982 cult classic whose primary appeal seems to be to those who weren’t even alive when the original was released. This isn’t idle speculation either- I attended the screening with the Offspring, who’s almost ten years old, and as the credits rolled he proclaimed the movie one of his all-time favorites. I don’t agree with this assessment, mind you, since for one thing the movie’s exposition-heavy script doesn’t live up to the visuals. However, it’s easy to see why Tron: Legacy would hit a grade-school-aged boy’s sweet spot. For one thing, the action sequences are pretty killer- the Light-Cycle sequence honors the original film while upping the ante, as the cycles speed up and down ramps and even careen through the air, and they shatter when they collide. And that’s a mere warm-up for the climactic Light-Plane battle, which is pretty mind-blowing, all the more so because neophyte director Joseph Kosinski has a good feel for directing and cutting action sequences. But beyond the action (and of course the effects), Tron: Legacy is an instant grade-school classic for the way it incorporates enough “mythology” into its storyline to make the film feel weightier than the usual blockbuster fare, and for its female lead Quorra (Olivia Wilde), who’s beautiful but sexless, and who’s written as more of a best pal than a love interest. Alas, Tron: Legacy never hits the heights of a film like Speed Racer, which works so well because the Wachowskis were assured enough filmmakers to commit to the film’s flashy aesthetic, while Kosinski is still working his way to that point. What’s more, he doesn’t have the same flair for directing actors as he does with visuals, as the film’s performances are all over the map (Jeff Bridges’ aged Flynn is basically a Zen Dude, Garrett Hedlund’s Sam is a colorless rebel-hero, and Michael Sheen’s Bowie riff is fun but sort of stops the movie cold). Still, if Tron: Legacy doesn’t break new ground as narrative, it’s pretty exciting as pure spectacle, and if nothing else it uses IMAX 3D in a way that actually works instead of simply cashing in on the fad. Rating: 6 out of 10.

The courts of critical (46 on Metacritic) and public (#8 at the box office its opening weekend) opinion have already weighed in on James L. Brooks’ How Do You Know and found it largely wanting. However, I think I could be forgiven for wanting to say a few words in defense of this most welcome rarity, a big-budgeted romantic comedy with a genuinely unique voice. More specifically, instead of utilizing the narrative efficiency found in more films of the genre, Brooks focuses on the messiness of his characters lives and makes that the crux of his film. Naturally, the film’s premise- two people having their first date on the worst day of their lives- is straight out of high-concept hell. But Brooks takes his characters’ problems, and their resultant neuroses, seriously instead of making them cutesy or the subject of easy jokes (this in itself makes it a welcome corrective to Brooks’ misguided Spanglish, which contained two super-duper-perfect characters and one character-Tea Leoni’s- who was neurotic to the point of grotesquerie). Observe Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) as she struggles to find her way after being cut from the USA softball team, attempting to forge her own new identity instead of simply “settling down.” Or look at the way George (Paul Rudd), no doubt tired of his father’s (Jack Nicholson) manipulations, decides to let both his fate and that of his father hinge on the outcome of a meeting he’s scheduled with Lisa. Then there’s that wondrous scene in which a man we’ve never even met previously makes a spectacularly convoluted proposal to the woman he loves following the birth of their son (a front-runner for my favorite scene so far this year). By conventional standards, How Do You Know is an unholy mess, but to hell with conventional standards. It’s pretty magical- certainly Brooks’ best work since Broadcast News- and I suspect time will be extremely kind to it. Rating: 8 out of 10.

Finally, a couple of bite-sized assessments… Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture has won legions of admirers for its handmade feel and its portrayal of post-graduate malaise, but the subject matter isn’t nearly as interesting as Dunham seems to think it is, and she does nothing to elevate it aside from throwing in plenty of quirkiness. Inspired in bits (like the world’s worst hookup), but exhausting at feature length (4 out of 10)… Neil Jordan’s Ondine won’t win the director any new fans, but it’s an unassuming charmer. Some of the plot manipulations in the second hour are fairly creaky, but the photography is beautiful without feeling scenic, and Farrell continues to grow as an actor (6 out of 10).

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

A Parade of Sixes (and one Four)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I (David Yates)- by now, most moviegoers have formed a more or less ironclad opinion on the Potter franchise, and Deathly Hallows the First is not a movie that’s going to change people’s minds. But for those who’ve been following the series to date, this seventh installment provides a compelling contrast to the previous entries. A lot of this is due to Harry and the gang being removed from their usual setting- the film lacks the comfortable structure of a school year at Hogwarts, with the attendant classroom misadventures, relationship troubles, and everything else that implies. Here, Harry and his friends are no longer insulated from the magical world as a whole, and their having to make their own way leaves them far more vulnerable, thereby adding a new urgency to the film that wasn’t there previously. That said, like most of the other Potter movies, the filmmaking is more staunchly professional than inspired, and the storytelling, even with the necessary cuts to the source material, feels as dutiful and slavish as ever (also, I despair that of all the Potter directors, only Cuaron was able to locate the grey area between whimsical wondrous “good magic” and the sinister Dark Arts). Still, while it’s not great cinema, it’s one of the better entries in the Potter series, and sets up next year’s allegedly final installment pretty well. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (Zach Snyder)- If nothing else, Guardians deserves to be seen for its pure visual splendor- the geniuses at Animal Logic have created a richly detailed and immersive world for this film completely out of 1s and 0s, and Snyder’s visual bombast is surprisingly well-suited to animated fantasy. It’s sort of a pity then that the rest of the movie falls short of its images. Guardians’ screenplay comes off mostly as a standard-issue fantasy formula- only, you know, with owls- and consequently the storyline of the film contains precious few surprises. This wouldn’t be such a glaring issue for me if Ang and I weren’t currently reading the Ga’Hoole books with the Offspring, in which much of the story is focused on the workaday details of its characters’ lives- for example, young hero Soren and his friends attend classes after their arrival in the Ga’Hoole tree, but while Snyder treats these classes as snippets in a montage, author Kathryn Lasky takes time to lay out the content and context of their lessons (I’m a procedure guy, what can I say). Snyder, never a particularly deep thinker, also fails to wrap his mind around the ambiguity of the film’s battle scenes, in which the peace-loving intellectuals from Ga’Hoole fight to prevent the owls of St. Aggie’s from spreading their evil agenda throughout the world. Instead, his attention is solely on the choreography of battle, with all the slow motion and lingering shots that implies. And yeah, the battles are visually stunning- the whole movie is, really- but if Snyder would pay as much attention to his characters and their thoughts as he does to every feather and leaf, Guardians might be worthwhile as more than just eye candy. Rating: 6 out of 10.

The Square (Nash Edgerton)- the signature image of this Aussie neo-noir is the face of its protagonist, Raymond Yale (played by David Roberts). A middle-aged man in a dead-end marriage, Ray has a worn and weary-looking face, with deep lines framing a mouth that’s in a perpetual scowl, and a brow that only seems capable of expressing anxiety. But then, there’s little to express in The Square, set in a world of crooks and shady sorts that exists largely to be escaped. We’re in Coen brothers territory here, particularly the Coens of Blood Simple and No Country For Old Men, and Edgerton does a solid job setting the tone so that there’s little hope even before things start to get really, really bad (which of course they do). But while The Square is a solid genre piece, it’s rarely more than that, both because its tonal range is so narrow and because the screenplay is tragically short of the sort of vivid characterizations that distinguish the film’s influences. Consequently, The Square comes off less as a free-standing creation than as a demo reel for its maker. It’s an efficient machine, but it falls short when it comes to honest-to-goodness vision. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Enter the Void (Gaspar Noé)- of course, there’s plenty of vision to go around in Noé’s latest, a dazzling formal experiment in which we follow a man’s soul as its leaves his body after death. Much like in Irreversible, Noé makes extensive use of an ever-moving camera and invisible edits, and he shoots almost entirely from a first-person perspective, all the better for us to experience the protagonist’s “death trip” through his own eyes (so to speak). Noé has always been a bold filmmaker, and it’s this boldness that allows him to find transcendent moments in a narrative that otherwise might come off as morbid or maudlin. Trouble is, these transcendent moments are inextricably linked to ideas that are, to put it mildly, sort of dopey. The primary thematic inspiration for Enter the Void is the Tibetan Book of the Dead, but there are very few ideas on display here that aren’t expressed more artfully- and succinctly- in Revolver-era Beatles songs like “She Said She Said” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” (which was originally titled “The Void”, dontcha know). And while it’s admirable of Noé to sustain his formal experiment far longer than most directors would have, the truth is that at upwards of 2 ½ hours, Enter the Void wears pretty thin after a while. Still, no one is making movies like this nowadays, and if I have to sit through two-odd hours of tedium in order to experience a strange and magical image like two people making love while soft colored light wafts from their coupled genitalia, I’ll make the sacrifice. At least I’ll know I’m in the hands of someone who’s trying something new and different, and who isn’t afraid to fail big. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Chloe (Atom Egoyan)- That’s more than I can say for Egoyan, who back in the nineties was one of the world’s most acclaimed filmmakers before losing his way in this past decade. Nowadays, Egoyan appears to be following the Scorsese template of “one for me, one for them,” which isn’t a bad way to sustain a career as a filmmaker, but which doesn’t seem to be working for him. Even more than Where the Truth Lies, Chloe is a baldly commercial project- a remake of the forgettable French drama Nathalie…, with a screenplay written by someone else. For the first two-thirds, Chloe is sort of effective, as Amanda Seyfried’s titular prostitute spins yarns to suspicious wife Julianne Moore of her husband’s (Liam Neeson) infidelity, and Moore finds herself both angered and turned on by the revelations. It’s a fairly good idea for a movie, and I can imagine Egoyan making something really striking had he made a film entirely of the conversations between the two women. Unfortunately, Chloe is far too conventional for this, and after about an hour of humming along fairly serviceably, the film degenerates into Fatal Attraction territory, with Chloe falling hard for Moore’s character and doing everything she can to insinuate her way into her family’s life. Chloe is never a great movie, but it’s still disappointing to see the bottom fall out of it, especially considering that its maker should have known better. But hey, naked Seyfried is worth a rental, right? Rating: 4 out of 10.

Additionally, I’ve seen plenty of other movies lately that I haven’t had the chance to write about (sorry buds). Some brief thoughts… I’m sort of intimidated by the prospect of reviewing Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, mostly because there’s so much movie there, not to mention that compared to most movies of its sort it feels pretty free-form. It’ll take me at least a second viewing to suss out how I feel, but the filmmaking brilliance on display is undeniable [8 out of 10]… RED commits the grievous sin of assembling Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, and Brian Cox and giving them almost nothing to do that’s actually interesting. I mean, really- why should we care about Bruce Willis and Mary-Louise Parker’s childish flirtation when these four great actors should be running the show? [4 out of 10]… Soul Kitchen essentially takes every cliché of the ethnic crowd-pleaser genre (restaurant division) and livens them up with lots of style and panache, courtesy of director Fatih Akin. It’s nothing you haven’t tasted before, but it goes down easy. Soundtrack is pretty kickass too [6 out of 10]… there’s not much I can say about The Oath that the great Michael Sicinski hasn’t already said, but I was most interested here in how Poitras portrays Abu Jandal, the former Al-Qaeda operative-turned-taxi driver. He’s a wealth of contradictions, and I found him pretty fascinating [7 out of 10]… likewise, I’m fascinated by the complexities of the late Pat Tillman, and the best parts of Amir Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story embrace these many sides. Sadly, the film itself isn’t so multifaceted, but it’s still a worthy portrait [7 out of 10]… having sat through my share of business courses in the last few years, I was somewhat less surprised by the revelations found in Inside Job than most audience members, but if you want a single-serving primer of what went wrong in our economy, this’ll do nicely [6 out of 10]… finally, jackass 3D is more of the same, and even if it never quite hits the high points of number two, it’s still entertaining as all hell [7 out of 10].

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Last Days

As you may recall, last fall Muriel had some health problems last fall after she contracted an infection in one of her eyes. Needless to say, it was a pretty difficult time for me, and back then I didn’t know if she would make it. Once I saw her condition, I knew I would have to get it taken out, but because of the pain she stopped eating almost completely, and I ended up having to take her to the veterinary hospital to get them to make her eat again. My most vivid memory of this was from the drive to the hospital. I drove with one hand on the wheel and the other petting Muriel in her box, and again and again I did my best to reassure her. I’ve always been the sort of person to talk to animals as if they could understand, and before we entered the hospital, I looked down at her and said, “I’m going to make sure you’re not in pain anymore. No matter what, I don’t want you to hurt.”

While I waited for the doctors to finish working on Muriel, I reconciled myself to the idea that she might not survive her illness. I even said “goodbye” to her before they took her back to the examination area, just in case. So when she started to eat again, putting back on enough weight that she could have the infected eye removed, I was naturally grateful. As you already know, she survived that surgery as well. After she recovered from the illness and became her ornery self again, we started joking around the house that she was indestructible.

Of course, this wasn’t true. Guinea pigs are small and fairly fragile creatures, and their life span averages roughly four years. When she fell ill again last weekend, it had been a little over four years since I first brought her home, and she had lived to a fairly good age for her species. And because guinea pigs are so delicate, I didn’t want to run the risk of putting her under the knife again. After all, we had fought off death together once already, and I didn’t want to risk tempting fate again. So instead, I decided to spend one last night with my Muriel, cradling her to my chest as I gave her water from her bottle. If I was really going to have to say goodbye, I wanted to do it at home, surrounded by the family (human and canine alike) who had grown to love her these past four years. And when she passed away in her sleep that night, I thought that was just about the best she could have gone, much better than I feared would happen when she was sick last year.

Goodbye, Muriel. Thank you for being part of my life.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Sad news

Sad news for you Muriel lovers- our little girl, who graciously lent her name to everyone's favorite online movie awards, passed away during the night at the age of 4. I'll try to post some thoughts about her soon, but until then here's a link to an appreciation I wrote about her prior to the 2009 Muriels:

Click here to read my post about Muriel from 6 February 2010

Muriel has been there for me through a lot of changes in my life, and she will be greatly missed.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Tradition of Quality

So as some of you regular readers may have noticed, I don’t have a great record of sticking to projects I set up for myself. To wit- almost four months after the final of this year’s World Cup, I still have yet to pen a review of my promised World Cup of Cinema-winning title, Carlos Saura’s Blood Wedding. Now, this isn’t entirely my fault- despite repeated attempts at writing something substantial about it, it’s just not a film that lends itself to being reviewed. After all, it’s basically rehearsal and performance footage of a flamenco ballet, which would most likely result in something that does little more than combined plot synopsis with historical context, much as a Wikipedia might. Not exactly scintillating criticism, you might agree.

Yet this isn’t exactly unprecedented in this history of the blog. After Screengrab cast me to the winds last year, I decided to keep myself regular by launching a project called Criterion Watching, which since June 2009 has had exactly two (2) installments. And the less said about my much-ballyhooed “Nobel Project,” in which I set myself the goal of reading something by every Nobel Literature laureate and reviewing it, the better.

Of course, if I was a cynical prick I’d say to hell with it and that I don’t owe my readers anything. But that’s not true. After all, a blog isn’t meant as a soapbox, nor is it a kind of one-sided communication a la Glenn Gould’s 1:0 performer-to-audience relationship. No, it’s an open line of communication between the host blogger (that’s me) and his readership, both the regulars and the folks who stumble upon the blog almost by accident. And because I value you folks, the last thing I would want to do is alienate you.

So I won’t go about setting myself any more long-term projects in the foreseeable future. After all, I’m a busy guy, and I’d prefer not to renege on any promises. Instead, I’ll make a promise that I’m fully prepared to keep. As a wholly amateur writer, I reserve the right to write about whatever I want, and nothing I don’t, and in return, I’ll do my level best to make every post worth your time. If I don’t think something I write is worthy, I won’t post it. Sure, this will no doubt mean that the content turnover will stay fairly low, but I can deal with that if it means I can keep it at a high level of quality. And in the long run, I think we’ll all be better off for it.

Thank you, as always, for reading.

~~ PBC

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

“None of you will go to America; none of you will be film stars.”

“Everyone I know goes away in the end.” ~ Nine Inch Nails, “Hurt”

When asked recently about the essential difference between his original U.K. version of The Office and its American remake, series creator/star Ricky Gervais stated that while Americans are brought up to believe in their boundless potential for success, British children are more often reminded of their social standing and limitations. I expect that this difference has quite a bit to do with the chilly reception Mark Romanek’s delicate adaptation of Never Let Me Go has found on these shores. Like The Remains of the Day, the most notable big-screen Kazuo Ishiguro adaptation, Never Let Me Go is a story about people who have been born and raised for the express purpose of serving. It’s not necessarily a theme that resonates widely in a culture that values determination and grit, but it’s a more universal idea than most people would probably care to admit.

Click here for the (spoiler-y) full review.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

If this picture doesn't make you scream... you're already dead. (edited 21 August)

If there’s a theme for this year’s 2nd Annual Shock Around the Clock! 24-Hour Horror Marathon, it’s anniversaries. Fully half of the scheduled repertory schedule for this year’s marathon consists of movies that are celebrating some round-number anniversary or other. The biggie, at least in terms of historical import, is the centenary of Frankenstein on film.

Yes, Mary Shelley’s enduring horror story first appeared onscreen in 1910, the subject of a short film produced by Edison Studios, and Marathon gurus Joe Neff and Bruce Bartoo have booked the film for this year, along with the classic 1931 James Whale version. And while I personally prefer the 1935 follow-up Bride of Frankenstein- currently celebrating its 75th, come to think- I certainly won’t complain about this one playing instead. Beats the hell out of the Branagh/DeNiro version of the story- and the Sting version, for that matter.

However, Filmic Frankenstein’s impending birthday salutation from Willard Scott is far from the only big news at this year’s marathon. After all, there’s another horror masterpiece that’s turning 50. That’s right, folks- William Castle’s 13 Ghosts has its golden anniversary this year, and Bruce and Joe have booked a 35mm of the film, which will of course be shown in Castle’s patented gimmick cinematic breakthrough Illusion-O, to get the full ghostly effect. Should be fun.

Oh wait, you thought I was referring to another 50th Anniversary? Like, say, Psycho? Never fear, folks- the Marathon has booked Hitchcock’s masterful thriller/shower deterrent too. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this in 35mm, so that ought to be a treat.

Where there’s Hitchcock, you know that DePalma can’t be far behind. Not just any DePalma either, but rather DePalma’s most Psycho-esque film, Dressed to Kill. As an unapologetic DePalma fanboy, I believe Dressed is almost the equal of Psycho, so I’m excited to see it included on this program, especially if they’ve booked a nice clean print. Oh, who am I kidding- I’d watch this one projected through cheesecloth if need be.

Like Dressed to Kill, Dario “Monkey Bite!” Argento’s Inferno is turning 30 this year. I’ve only seen this one once, on a beaten-up VHS from the library, and I know enough about Argento to know that this antiquated format couldn’t come close to doing justice to his famed use of color and light. So seeing it on the big screen promises to be pretty eye-opening.

In addition to being a 25th Anniversary screening, this year’s marathon showing of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 also represents Joe and Bruce’s tribute to the late Dennis Hopper, who of course passed away this year. I for one plan on hitting the Grandview’s open bar, grabbing a drink (they sell Pabst Blue Ribbon, by the way) and raising a toast to Hopper, although I’d understand if you’d prefer using a nitrous inhaler for the same purpose. Hey, I’m not here to judge.

The last and perhaps most monumental marathon anniversary this year is the Platinum celebration of that eternal marathon favorite, Kevin S. O’Brien’s Night of the Living Bread cycle. For those who don’t know, O’Brien is a longtime Marathon attendee who decided to make a short spoof of Night of the Living Dead, and has since gone on to make several follow-up movies, all of which have become Marathon traditions. Bruce and Joe have hinted at special Bread-themed gifts for all attendees this year, so if you’re looking for a reason to come, there you are.

Of course, there are plenty of other goodies on the agenda beyond the requisite yeasty goodness. 1932’s Island of Lost Souls, featuring the dream pairing of Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi, will be making a rare 35mm screening here. That’s especially good news since the movie has yet to see an honest-to-goodness domestic DVD release. Personally, I’m eager to see this story done well in a way that doesn’t involve Marlon Brando playing piano duets with a little person.

And speaking of weirdness, word on the street is that Nobuhiko Kobayashi’s House is a classic head-scratcher. I wasn’t able to make it to the Wexner Center screening this past spring- I know, bad bad me- so I’m stoked that Joe and Bruce booked it for this event.

A few days ago, the one and only Vern wrote a characteristically whacked-out review of Slugs in which he impugned the titular creatures’ lack of scare potential. Well, I think this year’s Marathon would beg to differ, since they’ve booked a double feature of creepy-crawly chillers. First off, there’s the 2006’s super-gross Slither, featuring a veritable army of slugs that besiege a small town, and Michael Rooker as a local bigwig whose fate is particularly grisly.

The slightly more cerebral half of the pairing is David Cronenberg’s They Came From Within (aka Shivers), in which nasty, slug-like monsters infiltrate a high-rise apartment. This is another one I’m looking forward to seeing in 35mm, especially now that I know more about Cronenberg than I did the first time I saw it.

So let’s see- Whale, Hitchcock, Castle, DePalma, Argento, Cronenberg, Hooper- what other big-name horror directors could Bruce and Joe have shoehorned into this year’s lineup? Why not John Carpenter? This year’s Carpenter selection, Prince of Darkness, isn’t one of my favorite films of his, but it’s pretty fascinating in that he basically makes a horror movie out of little more than some menacing props, some colored-mist effects, and a cast that’s basically called upon to react to these two things. I’m curious to see how well this has aged.

Finally, it wouldn’t be a marathon without a handful of local premieres. So far, there have been some rumors floating around- A Serbian Film, Tuckers and Dale vs. Evil, the I Spit on Your Grave remake- but there’s only one title confirmed as yet. That would be the notoriously brutal French film Martyrs. Much like last year’s screening of Irreversible, this isn’t exactly a “premiere” since both films were already available on DVD by the time they played the Marathon. However, in both cases the Marathon screenings representing their first big-screen showing in Central Ohio. And like Irreversible, Martyrs promises to be polarizing in its violence, albeit in a way that’s slightly more palatable to genre fans.

All in all, this looks to be a Marathon to remember. I only wish Ang was able to come with me this weekend. Alas, she’s got some family business to attend to that supersedes her desire to accompany me. Although considering Martyrs’ rep, maybe that’s for the best.

The 2nd Annual Shock Around the Clock! 24-Hour Horror Marathon runs from noon on Saturday, October 23 through noon the next day. It will take place at the Grandview Theatre, located at 1247 Grandview Avenue, in Columbus. Ticket purchase information and more can be found at Hope to see you there!

Update! The Marathon powers that be have announced a second area premiere for this year's Marathon- the cult-ready Japanese exploitation flick RoboGeisha. Yeah, me neither, but having watched the trailer I'm guessing this will be... interesting. Hopefully it's more Lady Terminator than Arthur Golden, if you know what I mean. Here's the trailer:

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Killer Animal Blogathon Entry / Criterion Watching #2: White Dog

The overwhelming majority of titles that could be classified as “killer animal movies” fall squarely under the heading of B-movies. After all, for most people the phrase “killer animals” conjures up images of swarms of insects, jungle cats, or even giant bunnies on the loose, laying waste to human civilization. Hell, even the A-list movies in the lot- Jaws, most obviously- are still mostly about scaring the pants off the audience. I’m guessing that when Steve announced this Killer Animal Blogathon, his primary goal was to spotlight some of the genre’s more entertaining classics.

My selection is not one of these movies. Steve left the guidelines for the blogathon fairly vague, so while many people no doubt picked fun creature features, I decided to go the opposite direction. Not that there are many “serious” killer animal movies out there- in fact, I could only think of one. Then again, when many people hear about Sam Fuller’s White Dog, they mistake it for an especially sleazy entry into the genre. After all, it’s about a dog who kills African-Americans, so it’s got to be KKKujo, right? It was this same misconception that got White Dog withheld from American audiences by Paramount in the first place, and since then it’s gotten a bad reputation mitigated only slightly by the 2008 Criterion DVD release of the film. But then as now, White Dog is a major work by one of American cinema’s most incendiary talents, and it deserves to be taken seriously.

First, let’s just delve into that premise. Yes, this is a movie about a big white German shepherd that attacks and kills African-Americans, or as they still called them back in the early 1980s, “blacks.” But this white dog isn’t your garden variety killer animal. Unlike many killer-animal movies, White Dog never turns its titular character into a plot device who only turns up to maul someone then fade into the shadows until another victim comes calling. If anything, he’s the central character in the movie, around which all of the others revolve. Even when the dog is offscreen, he’s still the focus of the human characters’ lives and relationships with each other. At numerous points during the film, Fuller even adopts the dog’s point of view, in order to show us how he sees the world and to gauge the other characters through his eyes. In other movies, these shots might feel gimmicky, but here they enhance the film’s effect.

Likewise, Fuller allows us to gain further sympathy for the dog by focusing not on people who are against him but rather those who are most concerned. First, there’s Julie (former child star Kristy McNichol), a struggling actress who accidentally injures him with her car and takes him in before discovering his secret. Then there’s Carruthers (Burl Ives), who owns a company that provides animal performers for Hollywood. Finally, there’s Keys (Paul Winfield), the wild animal wrangler who takes it upon himself to re-educate the dog. All of these people care about the dog’s well-being in some way- Julie because she’s grown to love him, Carruthers because of his feelings about animals in general, and Keys (who is African-American) because he hates what has made the dog into a killer.

Julie is ostensibly the movie’s main human character, but Fuller is clearly most interested in and sympathetic to Keys. More than the other two, Keys recognizes that the dog is not to blame for his impulses to kill African-Americans. He speaks of the history of “white dogs”- how they were once used to track down freed slaves, then after the Civil War, escaped black prisoners (“but what about white prisoners?” Julie wisely asks). This dog’s urges are born from careful programming- early exposure to desperate African-Americans who have been paid by white racists to mistreat the animals- and based solely in fear and conditioned hatred. Keys knows that if he is to make the dog well again, he first needs to make the dog learn to trust him and his skin color. The film’s central scenes show Keys alone with the dog, allowing the dog to attack him (under pads, of course), never once retaliating. Once the dog begins to learn that Keys won’t hurt him, Keys begins to feed the dog in order to gain his trust.

Of course, it’s a long and difficult process toward rehabilitation, and at one point the dog escapes and kills an African-American man (Fuller removes any suspicion that White Dog is an exploitation film by avoiding showing both the killing and the aftermath). But even after this happens and even Julie and Carruthers want to put the dog down, Keys wants to cure the dog more than ever, motivated to score a victory against racism. In Romain Gary’s original novel, Keys acted on a need for revenge and re-trained the dog to kill whites, but Fuller wisely deviates from this and makes Keys’ motives more enlightened. The dog, by nature, is ruled by its programming, but humans are able to choose their actions.

And it’s this idea that makes White Dog more than just a killer-animal movie. By presenting us with an animal that isn’t governed by thought, Fuller asks us to consider our own deep-seated urges. After all, we like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, but much of how people self-identify is based in personal taste and bias. Some of these biases are natural and healthy, like what foods we like. Others are mostly harmless, such as the crazy-ass belief floating around nowadays that skinny waifs are somehow more attractive than curvy women (really, guys? Really?). But sometimes, these beliefs- be they religious, political, or social- can turn into a wedge and cause rifts in our society.

For example, look at the way the word “Muslim” is treated by many Americans as a dirty word. Of course, many of these same Americans know little about Islam other than that they bombed the World Trade Center and hate women and America, but that’s enough for them to be suspicious of and hateful to over one billion people worldwide. It doesn’t help that we’ve been bombarded by decades of nefarious big-screen terrorists and images of bearded, glowering men living in caves on the nightly news. But ultimately, it’s up to us whether we want to accept our often secondhand prejudices or come to terms with life’s complexities by using facts and reason. It’s only when we learn to consider their own thoughts and actions instead of accepting them at face value that we can move past our more hateful natures. And that’s what Fuller is saying with this movie- that if you can’t learn to see the world in anything more than simple black and white, you don’t have any more sense than… well, a white dog.

Footnote: I didn’t have room in my review for this, but after watching White Dog I couldn’t help but think back on my own experiences with racism, and more specifically my first experience with it. Back in grade school, I was looking at our class’ globe with one of my classmates when we started pointing out different countries. After a while, he spun the globe around to Africa, pointed at “Niger,” and said… I’m sure you can guess. After he did this, he started chuckling to itself, said it again, and looked at me like I was supposed to laugh too.

That evening, I asked my parents what the word meant, and I was sort of stunned at what they told me. By this time, I knew about different countries and races, but I couldn’t fathom the idea of prejudice based on skin color. For one thing, one of my best friends at the time was African-American, so the idea of looking down on someone for being darker-skinned sounded strange to me. Learning about racism at that age was a rude awakening for me. In fact, I’d say I grew up more that day than on any other day of my life, even more than when I learned the truth about Santa Claus. At least when I found out about Santa Claus, the explanation seemed logical. Whereas racism still doesn’t quite compute for me.

Oh, and I still can’t read the country name “Niger” without thinking of that jackass kid. Thanks a lot, buddy.

Monday, October 11, 2010

“A guy who makes a new chair doesn’t owe money to everyone who ever built a chair.”

Nowadays, we’re told from childhood that we can do damn near anything, provided we’re willing to put forth the effort. And while that’s not entirely wrong, the truth is that some people have a much easier path to worldly success than others. To be born into money is a tremendous leg up for a child, since his family’s social and financial status allows them to use their money and connections to give their child an advantage over those who are less fortunate. And if David Fincher’s spellbinding The Social Network is any indication, the stratification is even more pronounced at the top. In the world envisioned by Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, the Harvard students we see aren’t content to accept that they’re the cream of the crop because they attend America’s most prestigious university- they need to further stratify their society, with the truly elite winning invitation to the school’s prestigious “final clubs” while the others find themselves on the outside, looking in.

Click here to read the full review.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

“It was just so… normal!”

You know, I think I’m pretty much done with Solondz. Happiness has its problems, particularly when Solondz feels the need to provoke, but it also makes some genuinely cogent points about the inability of its characters to relate to each other, or in some cases even try. For the most part, Storytelling and Palindromes kept the provocations while jettisoning the incisiveness, but I had some hope that Solondz might be able to pull it together for this sequel to Happiness. Alas, no such luck. Life During Wartime tones down the audience-baiting (to a point anyway), but doesn’t fill the gaps with anything interesting. It’s that rarest of creatures- a bland Todd Solondz movie.

Click here to read the full review.

In other blogalicious news...

In case you hadn’t heard, a few months back the archive of posts at The Screengrab was removed from the website. Of course, Screengrab shut its doors over a year ago, but I had foolishly hoped that I’d continue to be able to steer folks to my semi-pro reviews and posts in their original context, comments and all. Alas, this wasn’t to be. I suppose Nerve was looking to save themselves some server space, which I guess I can understand. Still, it’s a little disorienting to find that an entire chapter in my life has been removed from the public record.

Anyway, I’m currently in the process of re-posting my long pieces from Screengrab to my “archive” blog My Hermes Handbag!, which had previously been used primarily to host the links to the original pieces. Naturally, this will take some time, but if you’re curious to see the longer stuff I’d write back when I was actually getting paid for it, check it out.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Getting My Priorities Straight

As we reach the beginning of October, we’ve got a scant three months left in the year. And with a fall movie season that will no doubt be packed with big honkin’ Muriels contenders- this weekend alone sees the Columbus release of a new David Fincher movie, the Sundance favorite Catfish, and the winner of the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival- I can’t help but think of all the interesting movies I’ve already missed from this year. So I took a look at the list of Muriel-eligible movies from the year to date and was sort of dumbfounded by how much I couldn’t squeeze into my schedule over the past nine months.

Not all of these movies have made it to Columbus yet, so I’ve got an excuse for those. Likewise, not all of these movies hold the same level of interest for me, which is good since I don’t have remotely enough time to watch everything here. So I made the following lists to distinguish between the “must-sees” and the rest of the bunch.

Level 1 – Movies I’m set on seeing before the Muriels
Around a Small Mountain (Rivette) [playing 17-18 December at Wexner] – I didn’t fly to NYC to see Out 1 because I’m just a casual Rivette fan, after all
Enter the Void (Noe) [no Columbus release date scheduled] – someone pleasepleaseplease open this and book it on the biggest screen you’ve got
Greenberg (Baumbach) [now on DVD]
Mother (Bong) [now on DVD]
Red Riding Trilogy (Jarrold/Marsh/Tucker) [now on DVD] – these last three came out here during a spring which found me extremely busy
Never Let Me Go (Romanek) [scheduled to open 22 at Drexel] – reviews from TIFF weren’t great, but I dig the book and I’m curious how this will work onscreen
Soul Kitchen (Akin) [no Columbus release date scheduled] – should play OK at home, but I’d be happy to see it in any form
The Tillman Story (Bar-Lev) [no Columbus release date scheduled] – my most anticipated doc of the year, since I’m fascinated by the Tillman saga

Level 2 – Movies I hope to see, most likely for a specific reason
Bluebeard (Breillat) – between this and Sleeping Beauty, this looks like Breillat is in a strange new phase, and I’m eager to see what she’s up to
Chloe (Egoyan) – Egoyan’s sort of lost his way in recent years, but I refuse to give up on the guy, and if all else fails I can always skip ahead to the Moore/Seyfriend sex scene.
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Inferno” (Bromberg/Medrea) – supposedly this is a nothing-special piece of cinema, but seeing Clouzot’s footage is pretty tempting
Hideaway (Ozon) – Ozon hasn’t squandered his 8 Women goodwill yet
I Am Love (Guadagnino) – I actually went to see this once, but the power went out in the theatre, so if nothing else I’d like to finish what I started; also, Tilda
Lourdes (Hausner) – supposedly contains a powerhouse Silvie Testud performance
The Oath (Poitras) – missed this doc a few months back, but I’ve heard lots of good things
The Secret of Kells (Moore) – the kid subjects me to all manner of big-budget ‘toons, so I’m always curious about new animation talent
The Square (Edgerton) – has been compared by many to Blood Simple; does it warrant the comparison?
Valhalla Rising (Refn) – I’m still searching for the proverbial “good Viking movie”, and this one could just fit the bill

Level 3 – Movies I’m curious about, but don’t necessarily need to see
Agora (Amenabar)
Ajami (Copti/Shani)
Animal Kingdom (Michod)
The Art of the Steal (Argott)
The Concert (Mihaileanu)
Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl (de Oliveira)
The Exploding Girl (Gray)
Fish Tank (Arnold)
I’m Still Here (C. Affleck)
The Killer Inside Me (Winterbottom)
Leaves of Grass (Nelson)
Lebanon (Maoz)
Looking for Eric (Loach)
Mesrine: Killer Instinct / Public Enemy No. 1 (Richet)
Micmacs (Jeunet)
Mid-August Lunch (di Gregorio)
The Milk of Sorrow (Llosa)
Neil Young Trunk Show (Demme)
Ondine (Jordan)
The Other Guys (McKay)
Smash His Camera (Gast)
Solitary Man (Koppleman/Levien)
Splice (Natali)
Spring Fever (Lou)
Sweetgrass (Barbash/Castaing-Taylor)
Trash Humpers (Korine)
Women Without Men (Neshat)
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (Allen) – this one’s kind of sad, since he only directed one of my all-time favorite movies; however, his last decade of work and the lack of quality control he seems to have any more don’t exactly inspire confidence

Bear in mind that I’m only taking into account movies that have already come out in NYC, which means there should be plenty more movies added to these lists before the end of the year.

Like last year, I plan to contact some of the smaller distributors in an attempt to snag screeners for myself and my fellow Muriels voters. But while I certainly wanted to encourage anyone who wishes to assist me in seeing the movies that interest me, I mostly just wanted to post these lists as a way of getting some feedback from you folks. The Level 1 selections are pretty set in stone at this point, but if you think I’ve underestimated one of your favorites of the year, or if I’ve forgotten something altogether, please let me know. And if I’m interested in something that’s just plain terrible, then by all means let me know that as well.

Finally, if you’re curious, here’s my top 10 of the year to date:
1. Dogtooth (Lanthimos)
2. Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy)
3. Winter’s Bone (Granik)
4. Inception (Nolan)
5. The Ghost Writer (Polanski)
6. Everyone Else (Ade)
7. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Wright)
8. Toy Story 3 (Unkrich)
9. Father of My Children (Hansen-Løve)
10. A Prophet (Audiard)

Monday, September 20, 2010

“You need a Venn diagram for these people.”

One of the biggest surprises of 2007 was the discovery of Ben Affleck as a serious filmmaker. Some would argue that much of the success of Affleck’s debut feature Gone Baby Gone was due to some fine acting and strong source material by Dennis Lehane, but Affleck was to be commended for eliciting those performances from his cast and finding the right tone and style for the material. Unfortunately, he can’t replicate this success with his follow-up film The Town. There are points in the film where he seems to be chasing after the same downbeat thriller vibe, but the magic never quite happens.

Click here for the full review.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Blog news of the week

This morning, I received an e-Mail from one Claire Thomas of the Theatre Seat Store site. It seems that aside from its normal line of business of selling seats to aid in the comfy viewing of movies, the folks at the site have taken it upon themselves to spotlight some of their favorite movie-related sites. And somehow, yours truly was one of the bloggers they chose.

Needless to say, I was pretty flattered. I don’t write nearly as much as I once did- don’t have the time, alas- but I always hope that I’ll make at least a little impact on readers, both the ones I know and the ones who just stumble in and stick around a while. I think I’m in pretty good company too, considering that some of their other picks were perennial blog favorites like new At the Movies correspondent Kim Morgan, 2009 Muriels winner Glenn Kenny, and longtime buds Andrew Bemis and James Frazier.

Since I am really humbled about being honored like this, and because one can never have too much flair on one's blog, I’ve gone ahead and posted the banner at right. Thank you, Claire and the Theatre Seat Store powers that be. And thanks once again to all my readers out there.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Latest and greatest

Not much to report here, except that I recently reviewed the whimsically confounding Wild Grass and the middle-of-the-road Melville wannabe The American.

But if it's something more significant you seek, check out Cinevistaramascope, where my pal Andrew Bemis is putting a poll to determine the best movie of the past decade. I'm a little dismayed to see the steep competition facing my beloved New World. At least 8 Women made it past the first round...

Friday, September 03, 2010

TIFF like a champion today!

Well, September has arrived, and that could only mean one thing... the Toronto International Film Festival! (What, you thought I was talking about football?) And as usual, part of me wishes that I could return once more this year. I have other commitments that take precedence in my life right now, and even if I had enough money to cover a trip to Toronto there are a number of other vacations for my whole family that I would spend it on first. Nonetheless, my trip back in 2007 was great, and I have a feeling that someday, I’ll make it back again.

If you consider yourself serious about cinema, you owe it to yourself to go to TIFF at least once in your life. Whereas festivals like Cannes and Sundance seem to be staged primarily for critics and industry folk, Toronto places its emphasis on appealing to the audiences themselves, making it very user-friendly even for a first-timer. Still, a festival as large as Toronto can be daunting if you don’t know the lay of the land. So, if you’re going this year, or you’re thinking of going in the future, here are a few tips to make things easier on you:

1. Start planning early.

Going to TIFF isn’t cheap, so locking in your transportation and lodgings early in the game could save you money. This is especially true of area hotels, which get booked pretty solid the closer one gets to September. By taking care of your lodgings early on, you can find a hotel that suits your purposes and won’t drain your wallet, instead of having to settle either for something that costs more than you were hoping to pay or is cheap but subpar.

2. Know why you’re going.

With 300-plus films screening, there are plenty of options for all sorts of filmgoers. So if you’re heading to Toronto, it helps to know what your expectations are from the festivals. TIFF offers more than a dozen programs, from Gala screenings (ideal for star-gazers) to Wavelengths (for fans of avant-garde cinema) to Real to Reel (manna for documentary fans). By knowing what you want from Toronto, you can help to make it a little smaller.

3. Get familiar with the movies before you go.

Beginning in July, the TIFF web site begins to announce the films that are screening at the festival. By mid-August, all of the titles have been announced. So if you want to TIFF, use the official site as a resource to determine what you might want to see. When I went, I even went so far as to make a list of titles that were interesting, with a separate category for movies that intrigued me the most- the movies, you might say, that justified the trip. This may take some time, but when it comes time to schedule your screenings, your efforts will pay off.

4. Take advantage of ticket packages…

Package-holders sometimes have preference for buying tickets to screenings, especially those who buy packages to specific programmes. This is especially true if you want to attend the nightly Gala screenings, which sometimes require special Gala screening passes. And even if you have the option of paying cash at the box office, having a pass can be preferable if you decide to rush a screening or if someone wishes to exchange his ticket.

5. … But don’t bother with the Out of Town service.

I know that for some festival vets, this is going to sound controversial, but hear me out. For those who don’t know, the Out of Town service is the initial chance for non-Toronto residents to purchase tickets to screenings. The process entails receiving your registration packet (including your screening passes, registration forms, and program catalog) one day in late August, filling out your desired schedule overnight, and FedExing it to Canada the next day. Doesn’t sound too bad, right? Except that it costs a rather galling $150 for the service. And even if you do everything you’re required to do, you’re still not guaranteed to get everything you want. To me, it doesn’t seem to be worth the price.

Instead, I recommend sketching out a screening schedule before you go up to Canada, then when you arrive, head to the ticket office with your schedule and your passes and buy tickets to as many of the movies you really want to see as you can. If you get locked out of some screenings- and this will probably happen in at least a couple of cases- don’t worry. By and large, the Festival doesn’t sell every seat in the theatre in advance. Every morning, the screening status for movies playing that particular day will be updated, and screenings that had been locked will suddenly find themselves with tickets available to those who don’t mind getting up early and making the trip to the ticket office. And if all else fails, there’s always the rush line (more on this later).

6. Hit town early.

This is especially important for first-timers. Toronto is a very friendly and easily navigable city, especially around the Festival. But like any large city, it can be a little imposing if you don’t know the territory, so plan on showing up a day beforehand and getting the lay of the land. Take the time to find all the screening venues, as well as with the subway that will be transporting you between them. This will prove valuable once the screenings begin, in that you’ll know more or less where you’re going and can concentrate on getting there. And if you have time left over, check out the city, which is lovely and offers plenty of fun even for those who aren’t going to the Festival.

7. Be flexible.

One of the biggest rookie mistakes one can make at Toronto is over-booking oneself. With so many movies to choose from, there’s a temptation to schedule as much as possible in the interest of not missing anything. But by locking yourself in to too many movies, you run the risk of overlooking something just as good or better. So when you arrive in town and head to buy your tickets, go ahead and fill up your few two or three days, but beyond that leave plenty of space in your itinerary. Then as the festival progresses, keep an ear out for buzzed-about titles. TIFF is filled with people who get excited about movies, so if you’re seated next to someone before a screening starts, go ahead and ask about what they’ve seen. Then if something sounds interesting, you can always try to buy a ticket the morning of the next screening, or even…

8. Rush, rush, rush.

For all the assurance you can get from knowing you’ve already gotten your ticket for a particular movie, there’s something about the rush lines that really encapsulates the TIFF experience like nothing else. The way it works is that people who don’t have a ticket to a particular screening can line up outside the theatre in the hope of getting in. Fifteen minutes before the screening starts, the wonderfully helpful festival volunteers will begin letting in people in the rush line, who are permitted to watch the movie in exchange for the cost of admission. So what is it about rush lines that’s sort of magical? Perhaps it’s that tense excitement about the movie, or about the festival experience as a whole, that motivates people to queue up without knowing for sure whether they’ll actually be able to see the movie. Some of my best conversations at the festival were had with complete strangers in rush lines, talking about what we’ve seen, what we were waiting for, and what we’ve heard about from others. And even if you don’t get in, you can always commiserate with your new rush-line pals afterwards, perhaps over dinner or drinks. When the hero of Fight Club referred to single-serving friends, he could have been talking about rush lines.

9. Beware the festival wall.

There are plenty of opportunities to have fun in Toronto, but avoid overdoing it. Seasoned TIFF-goers often talk of a “wall” that sets in around the fourth or fifth day of the fest. After several days filled with four, five, or even six screenings, coupled with having to scramble between different venues, one’s body begins to rebel. Suddenly, those 9 AM screenings aren’t looking so appealing anymore. This is the other reason why you shouldn’t fill up your schedule during the second half of the festival- sometimes it’s necessary to head back to the hotel for a quick nap so you can be alert for the movies you really want to see.

10. Don’t forget to eat.

The festival wall is pretty much inevitable, but it’s less of an issue if you keep to a regular schedule. Sleep sometimes needs to go by the wayside- after all, there’s a new John Carpenter film in Midnight Madness this year!- but that doesn’t mean you need to skip meals as well. Always grab breakfast in the morning, even if it’s just coffee and a bagel at one of the Tim Horton’s that has sprouted up on seemingly every corner. And don’t take all your lunches and dinners during screenings. Concession stand food isn’t the healthiest for you, nor is it always the tastiest option. Every day, try to do either lunch or dinner outside of a theatre setting as a way of decompressing. There are plenty of great restaurants in the festival area to try. Or if you’re pressed for time, there’s always the wide variety of Toronto hot dog carts. Trust me on this- unless you’re completely grossed out by either hot dogs or street vendors, you really owe it to yourself to sample Toronto’s street meat at least once. If those things aren’t famous, they damn well oughta be.

There are plenty of other tips I could give here- for example, avoid seeing movies at the festival if they’re due to be released within the next few weeks, since you’re basically paying three or four times as much for a movie you could just as easily see in the near future for theatre price. But I think the ten bits of advice I’ve given here cover most of the major aspects of the festival that would be of interest to first-timers. If anyone has anything else to add, feel free to use the comments section below. And for everyone who’s TIFFing this year, have a great time!